The struggle for water in the Americas

Development Policy06 Mar 2013Marcela Olivera

The public-public partnerships that are currently being implemented throughout Latin America are an important, but often neglected, alternative to water sector privatization. 

In the Americas, we have been fighting water privatization since the early 1990s: from Detroit in the United States to Buenos Aires in Argentina. After the infamous 2000 water war in Cochabamba, Bolivia, that led to the expulsion of a multinational corporation, social movements throughout the Americas have organized themselves to protect water from greed.

In August 2003, in El Salvador, several organizations from the Americas assembled and decided to create the Red VIDA (Network for Inter-American Vigilance in Defense of and for the Right to Water). Through this network, we would launch a coordinated hemispheric campaign to defend water as a common good.

Since its beginning in 2003, we have worked very hard resisting water privatization and expelling corporations that were profiting from our water sources and water utilities. We have also insured that constitutional amendments were passed that prevent the commodification of water. In Uruguay, for example, the Red VIDA was active in the campaign that led to a constitutional amendment declaring access to water as a human right.

In Bolivia and Argentina, the Red VIDA has worked to stop corporations from profit extraction through unreasonably favorable exit contracts. In both those countries, Red VIDA has also worked to expose unjust state-investor lawsuits.

In Cordoba, Argentina, the state legislature was ready to approve an exit payment to Suez that included major subsidies, forgiveness of all unpaid back taxes and fines, and assigned all Suez liability to the government. In response, the Red VIDA, along with other organizations, organized protests, community meetings, press conferences and wrote numerous articles exposing the case.

We realized through all these efforts that while resisting privatization was at the core of our work, building alternatives was not only being neglected, but was the essential next step that we needed to take.

From resistance to building alternatives: Public-Community Partnerships

Privatization of public utilities has largely failed in South America, mainly due to the people’s resistance. This failure, in combination with poorly functioning public systems, has given rise to the new concept of public-public partnerships.

The public-public partnerships that are currently being implemented throughout Latin America bring a broad group of actors into collaboration, including public utilities, community water systems, trade unions, academic institutions, public authorities and the water justice movement. This collaboration focuses on methods that ensure participatory and transparent water management based on principles of universal access, democracy, horizontalism and solidarity.

The Platform for Public and Community Partnerships of the America, a project of the Red VIDA, is an association of social and labor organizations, public institutions, public utilities and community water systems that are promoting cooperation agreements between public and community water systems across the continents.

For more than 4 years now we have been promoting public-public, public-community and community-community partnerships in Colombia, Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia. We have realized that this is the best way to fight privatization: by improving our water systems, strengthening the communities’ participation, and involving public sector workers in the decision-making process.

The media rarely reports these types of initiatives but they are happening all over the world. We are walking a new path that has many challenges, both known and unknown. However, we are demonstrating that it is possible to build a different world; a world in which people are capable of taking problems into their own hands, developing alternatives, and making their own decisions.